Higher education is responding as quickly as possible to the rapidly evolving coronavirus pandemic, but this has meant significant and rapid change for our campus communities. As higher education navigates new ways of operating and educating, communication can foster better understanding and support of these changes. And with most campuses now closed, communication platforms form the primary—and perhaps only—bridge between the institution, the students, their parents or guardians, and alumni.

These communities have both common and distinct needs and concerns:

  • Students, parents, and guardians alike are concerned with the rapid switch to remote learning, which some may feel erodes the campus-experience component of the value proposition that many institutions offer to students and calls into question the value of continued enrollment.
  • While students are now focused on completing their coursework online, they also have concerns about campus events and activities that have been cancelled or delayed. In addition, they may feel separated from their on-campus community and uncertain about future academic terms.
  • Students who are financing some or all of their education share with many parents and guardians concerns over reimbursement of fees for auxiliaries such as room and board or athletic fees, as well as the status of financial aid awards as the economy moves toward a likely recession.
  • Alumni connections to the institution through athletic, cultural, and social programs have been disrupted. They will depend on communications not only to keep them updated on the status of these programs, but to provide alternative means of engaging with the institution.

More than ever, it is critical that institutions work to understand these communities, clearly define the objectives of communications, assess the available channels, and evaluate effectiveness versus the objectives, in order to drive agility and continuous improvement.


Deploy appropriate multi-channel communications

Now is the time to revisit the channels used to communicate with student, family, and alumni communities. While existing communication channels may still be valid—and indeed preferable at times—institutions should focus on how circumstances and expectations have changed and how they can best meet these communities where they would like to be met.

Most institutions will already have established communication channels with students, parents and guardians, and alumni. If these channels are now being used differently or are no longer being updated, constituents may be confused and uncertain where to find information and how to determine which messages are the most important and whether follow-up is needed.

For example, if faculty used a learning management system (LMS) or student information system (SIS) to post syllabi, deadlines for examinations and assignments, and other important course information, those sites should be maintained as the central source for coursework information. Strings of emails or texts from faculty or instructors that change deadlines or assignments are likely to result in missed communications and confusion for students, especially if the information conflicts with what has already been posted on the LMS or SIS. Because students need to regularly log into these systems, they can also be used as a platform to distribute critical communications via pop-ups or alerts, offering a “one stop” platform for students.

If text (SMS) notifications have been reserved for highly critical messages, such as campus emergencies, continued prudent use of this medium is likely recommended. Text notifications may, however, be effective in reminding students of key action items, such as registration dates or housing deadlines, that have already been communicated through other channels, including email, online student portals, or other SIS.

Individuals from all three communities will be actively seeking information on issues of concern to them. Institutions should be sure that SIS, mobile apps, websites, and social media platforms are updated regularly to reflect new information. Given the current circumstances, these communities also may be expecting a broader range of interactions and communications with the institutions. Higher education should be responding by enabling enhanced and responsive communication strategies as much as possible. Social media strategies, for example, might be enhanced to increase engagement with now-remote students, as well as family and alumni communities.


Coordinate communications

Students tend to receive a lot of emails, and that volume may have increased as new messages are sent by faculty, the provost, health services, or student affairs on changes to coursework, academic policy, financial aid, registration, and a host of other issues. Parents and guardians may also be receiving more communications than usual, as institutions communicate important changes and information to them. If these communications are not coordinated, the risk of confusion and miscommunication increases.

Institutions should consider how to drive more coordinated communications, utilizing enabling technologies, as applicable, to better manage and rationalize, as appropriate, the volume of messages constituents receive. Also consider consolidating messages, if possible, and enhancing identity management to enable better communication targeting.

With many students now back at home with their families, if not in another city or state, the timing of communications is also important. Communications of interest to both students and families should be coordinated to arrive simultaneously, so parents or guardians are not hearing from students (or vice versa) communications that they should also receive.

This may also be an appropriate time to encourage students and their families to update profiles and permissions to ensure that correct contact information is available and that appropriate consents have been granted, consistent with FERPA, for parents and guardians to access information on reimbursements, financial aid, and the logistics of moving student possessions out of residence halls.


Increase clarity

Institutions have an opportunity to better understand student, family, and alumni communities and ensure communications are as clear as possible based on the experience and expertise of individuals within these communities.

Work to limit the expertise required to access or comprehend communications in order to drive broad understanding as much as possible. To the extent possible, for example, communicate with parents or guardians through clearly written emails rather than through an online portal that requires a user log-in. Understand which social media sites are most frequented by different constituencies and target communications accordingly.

Administrators and faculty should also consider creating clearer indicators or differentiators to increase the clarity of messages. For example, use subject line indicators (information/important/urgent) or icon or color prompts to highlight action items with a consistently defined visual style.

Finally, be transparent about open questions and decisions that are of interest to these communities. The duration and intensity of the coronavirus pandemic remains uncertain, and institutions will not yet have all the answers to questions of immediate concern to constituents. Anticipate what these questions are and provide clarity as to why there are not yet answers and what the institution’s process and timeline will be in providing solutions.


Analyze and adapt

In order to drive continuous improvement, enhanced efficacy, and responsiveness, institutions should analyze communications and adapt strategies as necessary and appropriate. Higher ed institutions should be asking themselves if the communities they are trying to reach are engaging with communications, based on data such as open and click-through rates or evidence that the desired outcomes of the communications have been achieved.

Finally, there is an opportunity to solicit feedback in order to embed direct constituent perspectives into the strategy and planning process.

Communication is critical, particularly during this time of uncertainty and rapid change. In order to appropriately engage their student, family, and alumni communities, institutions and their leaders should objectively assess the current state and identify opportunities to enhance communications to better meet the needs of these communities and achieve key goals.


If you have any questions, or want to share ways in which your institution is communicating in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, please reach out to Julia Wysocki by email or by phone at (224) 500-7030.